“Show me that the good life doesn’t consist in its length, but in its use, and that it is possible – no, entirely too common — for a person who has had a long life to have lived too little.” ~ Seneca
In a country that notoriously doesn’t take enough time off work to stop and take a breath, I’m thankful that we have a holiday that begs us to stop and remember the warriors who have fallen in service of it. In addition to a mindfulness of gratitude, I think every fallen soldier would also want us to take a moment to contemplate if we are making the most of the gift of their sacrifice.
And so for today, I leave you with a simple question: Are you making the most of it? Do you wake up with an excited vigor for what you are working towards? Do you experience the periodic moment in the middle of your day where you suddenly realize “this is my life, and I love it”? Or even better, do you have projects or goals in front of you that make you even a little nervous about? That frenetic energy that comes from staring at an obstacle course ahead, but knowing that the only thing you can do is run straight at it and embrace the challenge.
Do you have any of these things in your life right now? Even in the margins, in small fragments? If not, ask yourself why? And the key word in that sentence is yourself. That’s not a situational question, It’s not a question of “why haven’t any of these things found me?” No, it’s a question of why you haven’t put yourself into a place to find it.
Inspiration is always available. You just have to reach up and grab it. The easiest way to find it is to force yourself to do something new.
And if you do have these things in your life, consider yourself fortunate. Contemplate them today, call out why and how you are grateful for them. If it is a person that grants you this joy and motivation, make sure you tell them today.
If you do have these feelings, these motivations, these joys, then enjoy today with the confidence and hope that you are living life the way those who sacrificed for us would prefer. You are earning it.
“If we ever do want to become wise, it comes from the questioning and from humility – not, as many would like to think, from certainty, mistrust, and arrogance. ~ Ryan Holiday, The Daily Stoic
Why are we so bad at “uncertainty?” Why does lacking a definitive answer make humans so uncomfortable? Why are we unable to be patient and wait for clarity to come to us?
Why, instead, do we manufacture our own certainty? Why are we unable to accept that what we don’t know is not a reflection upon our own value and character as a human? Why do we rush so quickly to premature judgment?
Why are we afraid to say “i don’t know”?
What if, instead of reacting immediately to every scary thing or suspicious thought we are introduced to, we simply didn’t do anything? What if we just decided to sit on those thoughts for a bit? What if we didn’t expend so much energy hammering away on the keyboard? What if we didn’t re-share that video that raises a lot of “important” questions that “everyone needs to see”?
What if we didn’t allow our nervous, insecure thoughts to control our brains? What if instead we looked for healthy ways to empower our brains to control our thoughts. What if we slowed down?
What if we were able to take an honest look at what we do know, and what we don’t know? And what if we could find a way to accept those 2 things, regardless of how little control it causes us to realize we actually have over everything?
What if we just paused, and waited for the answers to catch up to us? Would we miss that time?
Or do we instead know for certain that the way we are reacting quickly to things now is definitely the best way? Does it feel like the best way? Are we definitely accomplishing more? Are we winning? Are we proving to everyone that we definitely know more than the next guy? Do we feel better now?
“As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.” ~ Henry David Thoreau
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about personal freedom. Not the type of “personal freedom” you see fueling facebook arguments and public demonstrations on capitol building front lawns. I mean the type of freedom that allows one to feel content and beholden to no one, and how to achieve it.
On the surface, “true freedom” sounds quite simple: being able to do whatever the hell you want. But that’s not quite it, is it? I think it is necessary to analyze a little deeper, which leads to thinking about needs versus wants. Put more simply: True freedom is having everything you need.
But what do you really need? Have you ever really thought about this? An earnest examination is not so simple. Do you need that extra outfit you’ve been eyeing online and can’t wait to buy? Do you need the new model iphone? Do you need that promotion at work? That new gadget or car? Why? Will it really make your life finally achieve that elusive balance you’ve been seeking?
If you’re a little uncomfortable with this line of thinking, it’s okay. I am too. It goes against everything most of us are taught as children. “If you work hard enough, you can have anything you want” is a thing we hear a lot in America. Forgetting about whether or not it’s accurate, is that a healthy way to think?
Throughout civilization’s greatest thinkers, this has been a common point of contemplation, and thus, there is no shortage of clever quotes to point us in the direction of wisdom and learnings of those who came before us. From Socrates (“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.”) to Thoreau (quote above), from Gandhi (“Live simply so that others may simply live.”) to Fight Club (“the things you own, end up owning you). The human race is seemingly surrounded by cautionary wisdom that we can’t be bothered with. We can’t help ourselves, the allure of excess is too great.
The encouraging side of this dissonance however, is that it actually starts to feel really good when you figure out how to start telling yourself “no.” When you begin stripping the unnecessary from your life, it can almost become enjoyable, and the more uncompromising you become with yourself, the more attractive it all becomes. This is something I’ve been learning these last couple months.
I’ll cap this with an example that I read recently in my “the Daily Stoic” book, by Ryan Holiday.
“The late fashion photographer Bill Cunningham occasionally declined to invoice magazines for his work. When a young upstart asked him why that was, Cunningham’s response was epic: “if you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid.”” That’s the most punk rock thing I’ve ever heard. That’s true freedom.
While I am busy with little things, I am not required to do greater things. ~Saint Francis de Sales
Reading these words felt like a gentle slap across the face. I really, really needed to hear them in a way that should have been more obvious to me.
For the majority of my life, I’ve always sought out those “big moments”, whether it be the crucial play of the game in sports or grand romantic gestures for a love interest (which usually only took place in my imagination instead of reality). Unfortunately the side effect of this type of movie magic romanticizing was that I often found myself bored with the everyday moments, the little things. They just don’t capture the imagination quite as dramatically, do they?
Last week I took a break from writing. If I’m honest… I just didn’t feel like it. I sat down a couple times and stared at the keyboard endlessly before ultimately giving up, again and again. Coming off a couple tough weeks, I was lacking the creative inspiration. And when paired with the lack of momentum of habit, there just wasn’t anything there. So I gave myself a break. I decided that if it wasn’t going to be authentic, I wasn’t going to do it.
One of the other problems with this “seeking the big moment” approach is that, by default, I am constantly putting myself under the pressure to one-up myself in a way that can become unhealthy. Not to say that reaching higher is bad, it isn’t, but there is an intelligent balance to be struck, and I’m not always very good at finding it.
So lately, I’ve been trying to find more quotidian things to mindfully appreciate and enjoy. It almost feels uninteresting to write about them, but I suppose that is kinda the point, if I’m serious about learning this concept. Some of these simple things have been making my own coffee (I buy my beans from local roasters i really like and I use a Moka Express to pull espresso shots), or riding my bicycle (which i haven’t done regularly since childhood), or building playlists on Spotify and channeling my inner high school kid making mixtapes.
Yesterday I woke up and made myself a beautiful cup of coffee. I took my time to grind the beans extra fine for the espresso I desired and spent a whole minute just appreciating the aroma of the fresh grind, taking note of the differences and similarities between scent and taste, and the gift to appreciate as I began brewing with my Moka Express, I added a little oat milk to make a cortado and then slowly enjoyed the complex flavors of such a remarkably simple beverage.
Not long after that, I was on the road, muscling my way through a 20 mile ride (which isn’t impressive to serious riders, but I’m just getting back into this!). I took particular pleasure to feel the wind in my face and the burn of my lungs and legs as i pushed myself faster and harder along the bike path. I stopped at the halfway point at a park and laid down in the grass, soaking up sunlight, imagination drifting along with the clouds in the sky as I listened to my American Southwest-themed playlist. I imagined I was a cowboy resting alongside my old horse in the middle of a long journey in search of some wistfully unknown adventure. It was a silly little fiction in my mind, but I let it float along until it ran out of energy. I then practiced a breathing exercise for 10 minutes before hopping back on the bike and finishing the ride.
It was an incredibly simple day filled with numerous little things. And yet, when I was finished and laying in my bed that night, it felt like one of the greatest days I’d had in a very long time.
“Peace is the result of retraining your mind to process life as it is, rather than as you think it should be.”
~ Wayne W. Dyer
Last week I really tried to scrutinize what my normal routine had been for the first 2.5 months of this year, before it was derailed by the coronavirus’ impact on our normal way of life, and examine what could be improved and adapted to this new lifestyle we are all suddenly living. It was a good exercise, and one I’m not certain I’m finished with yet. In fact, I think this is a good thing to do every few months, in order to constantly check your direction to make sure you’re sailing on the correct course.
Lately I’d been understandably feeling a little demotivated and out of sorts. The current state of things had made it much harder to see the light at the end of the tunnel of work I usually find myself in, and the unexpected obstacles seemed almost insurmountable to me reaching even my short term goals. I didn’t have a plan for any of this. It was the perfect time to take a step back and reevaluate.
While I can’t say that I’ve “figured it out,” I can say that I’m slowly identifying small changes I can make to help me regain my previous momentum, but also more importantly, help me slightly alter my mental perspective. More specifically, rather than solely focusing on the output and outcome of just work, I see that it may be even more important for me to be focusing on the state of my mind and it’s comfort level, both in and outside my work.
There is probably a deeper dive somewhere in here about mental health and stress management, etc. but I want to keep this fairly surface-level and action oriented for the purpose of this writing. I’ll leave the rest of that other stuff to doctors and scientists. But the thing I’m after here is trying to ratchet up the acuity with which I direct at my own state of mind by reverse engineering the things my mind takes in and puts out, and evaluating how I can better manipulate those things to achieve a more satisfied, peaceful state of mind. Especially in these crazy times we’re living in right now.
For example: It can start as simply as examining the measure of success of a thing. Previously, my measure of success may have been the creation of a plan or document, or a completed contract, or a closed sale, etc. Notice a theme there? All of those things indicate some level of finality, something I cannot easily achieve in the current state of business. Under my old way of thinking of success, my inability to achieve any of these milestones would cause me to feel a sense of failure in my work, which would in turn add to the sense of futility or lack of direction I had been feeling in recent weeks.
Conversely, in my current state of action, instead of focusing the measure of success on something that can be defined by finality, I’ve begun shifting my source of satisfaction to the quality of work I’ve put in. Instead of just “checking boxes” off a to-do list, I’m focusing more on how that box gets checked, and afterward my brain is deriving a sense of satisfaction from that, rather than a sense of incompletion. I guess this could be more simply wrapped up as a “quality, not quantity” approach, but it feels different to me, mentally. I don’t think it’s as simple as switching lanes, I think it takes genuine mindfulness to appreciate the difference, instead of just going on auto-pilot.
Following that same line, I’ve also decided to start meditating every day. This is something I’ve attempted to do before, but have not always gotten the same amount of value that everyone else around me seemingly gets. By default, I may be one of the lucky few that doesn’t easily get overwhelmed by my thoughts, or consumed with anxiety, so the sense of peace that should come with attempting to calm the mind isn’t usually as pronounced for me, unfortunately. However, with the amount of “waiting” that seems to exist within any meaningful business action currently, I see the value in taking the time to exercise this discipline with that time, instead of planning too far ahead.
My hope is that I will learn something additional and unexpected while I commit just 5 minutes a day to attempting to quiet the mind and let everything else talk for a bit. Perhaps, just maybe, retraining my brain a little to focus on more important internal successes instead of quantifiable external successes might grant me something more valuable and more peaceful in the long run.
“Your principles can’t be extinguished unless you snuff out the thoughts that feed them, for it’s continually in your power to reignite new ones… It’s possible to start living again! See things anew as you once did – that is how to restart life!
~ Marcus Aurelius, “ Meditations”
This morning when I was trying to figure out what to write, this Aurelius quote that I had previously jotted down in my notes stuck out to me. Now seemed like the perfect time to reflect on it.
I don’t have to tell you how crazy the world is right now. In fact, many out there are looking for anything other than another reminder of how serious the situation is. And in the midst of all this, understandably, I have been completely knocked off my metaphorical horse. I’m sure you have to, to some degree.
Most of 2020’s theme for me has been about focus, determination, and most importantly, discipline. That discipline has been channeled specifically into routine. This is the first year of my life that I’ve been able to truly realize the power of routine, and the effective outcomes that it can yield. But for the last 2 weeks, I’ve been struggling.
My whole normal routine, the thing that had acted as the stabilizing anchor to my change in behavior and mentality in 2020, has been completely broken.
All the things that I normally do every day in the order I do them? Kinda pointless. The way that I usually do them? Kinda not relevant. Finding motivation in a quarantine with a total societal stoppage has been a lot more challenging than I could have possibly imagined.
And I think that’s how my perspective is shifting through this crisis so far. Not that “everything is pointless,” but rather that even though everything has changed, on the other hand, nothing has changed. We still need to get up every morning, feed ourselves, dress ourselves, clean ourselves (admittedly a little more frequently than before), and care for our own lives in some fashion or another.
Reduced to life’s most basic needs, none of that has changed. If I want more (like health & fitness goals, or professional accomplishment, etc.), I can still achieve it. And I still need a system, a routine, to reach for and accomplish it. Perhaps the system I was using yesterday no longer applies to the system I need today. Fine. Time to take a step back, reevaluate what I need, and structure a plan, a new plan, to continue reaching higher.
So that’s what I’ll be committing to doing this week. I’ll be reevaluating my daily routine and short term goals to find a daily routine and mindful focus that is more suitably adapted to the world’s current situation. I hope you will too.
“What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do.”
Last week I was speaking with a friend, hashing through some things they were frustrated with in what seemed to be stuck in a lack of progress. One of the core issues discussed was the mind’s desire to control, and the difficulty in letting go and trusting outcomes to arrive positively through patience. It is something I identify with extremely closely.
For as long as I can remember, whenever I’ve decided to commit to something, I commit to it wholeheartedly, with all my effort and energy. An admirable trait to be sure, but there is a darker side of that coin: an almost obsessive propensity to want things to be perfect, even if they don’t need to be. That intensity can have a lot of unintended consequences, particularly when it comes to working with other people.
Have you ever worked on a group project in school? Ever notice the way personality types quickly emerge once the work starts? There have been too many articles written on this very topic to count, so I’ll spare you that rabbit hole. But if you think back, I’m sure you can remember some of the best and worst team projects you’ve worked on previously and the people you worked on them with.
There’s the analyst or researcher, willing to do the book work. There’s the organized planner type. There’s the communicator, who volunteered to do most of the talking during the presentation. There’s the team player, a generally agreeable, well rounded person okay with whatever responsibility the group needs from them. There’s usually a creative type. You also undoubtedly encountered the slacker or procrastinator that just didn’t seem to care that much, nor did they volunteer for anything. There’s usually also a leader type, for better or for worse. That was usually me.
The thing about being a perfection-obsessed alpha type who usually assumes the leader role is that you typically have a hard time letting go of responsibilities and allowing others to drive. That’s a recipe for really bad teamwork, and one that took me a long time to learn. I grew up playing team sports, but mainly baseball, which is actually a 1 on 1 chess match masquerading as a team game. So I didn’t really learn to start trusting and relying on teammates until I got promoted into a Manager role at the call center I was working in at 30. It didn’t take me long to realize I couldn’t just get on the phone and make sales for my employees. I had to trust that they could get the job done so I could focus on other responsibilities.
One of the things that really helped me work through this subtle neuroses was the point where I learned how to differentiate what I could control and what I couldn’t. It is still something I haven’t quite mastered, but the better I get at it, the easier my life seems to get.
As I discussed these challenges with my friend, I conveyed the importance of this concept using “The Serenity Prayer,” a memorable mantra authored by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the early 1900s:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.
It sounds so simple when it’s in a cute little poem, but in practice, this is extremely difficult for some people (like me). My friend, familiar with the Serenity Prayer, responded with:
“I’ve been trying to remind myself of this, but it just doesn’t seem to get through to me” they said in a discouraged tone.
This made me think of the Tim Ferriss quote above.
“You know, if it is that difficult, it probably means it’s the thing you need to work on most,” I suggested, trying to avoid sounding like an asshole by quoting Tim Ferriss.
“Let me show you something,” I said, retrieving my daily planner. I paged through the last 2 weeks, showing how I have been starting every morning by writing down a quote by Cato (the one I wrote about last week). I then showed my Google Calendar, where every day at 2pm, I have an alert set to remind me of that daily focus again.
“This isn’t a thing you just learn one day. It’s a thing you learn every day,” I said reassuringly.
All productive, ambitious individuals have things they are working on to improve. Don’t be discouraged if you aren’t getting the quick results you desire. Instead, find ways to remind yourself and repeatedly force yourself to keep at it. You’re only really stuck if you give up.